Why do we treat elderly people so badly?

By Paul Donovan


When an old lady died in a geriatric ward in Scotland the nurses were surprised to find amongst her belongings a poem she had written.


It began: “What do you see, nurses, what do you see? What are you thinking when you’re looking at me? A crabby old woman, not very wise, Uncertain of habit, with faraway eyes? Who dribbles her food and makes no reply."                                                                                                           


The poem continued outlining the old lady’s life from being a young child to a teenager, a bride and then a mother. Then grandchildren playing around her knee. After that her husband dies and she enters the years of gradual decline to death.


The point that the old lady makes is that what the nurses see should not just be “a crabby old woman” but the young girl, mother and grandmother – the whole person who has lived their life to the full. Not someone to be pitied or treated as a second class citizen but someone to be respected and looked after. The poem struck a chord because it goes right to the heart of the disgraceful way our society treats the elderly.


A child, teenager and working adult, all are to be respected in our society. But once the person hits 60 the attitude changes. They are no longer regarded in the same way. The individual goes from contributor to becoming a burden or cost. The years of taxes and national insurance contributions paid seem somehow forgotten.


The pensioner is suddenly a burden on society; not only that, but, according to the media debate, a cost to younger generations.


A disingenuous argument aimed at dividing the generations is being formulated suggesting that the baby boomer and preceding generations had the good times. They bought their houses, wrecked the planet and now enjoy comfortable pensions. Their largesse means that the younger generation today may never own a home, have mounting debts and environmental catastrophe awaits.


The argument is slanted to an incredible degree. Pensioners have paid in their dues over the years. If things cannot be afforded, it is because of things like the banking crash and the failure to tax those who make huge profits, not the elderly. 


There is also a lack of recognition of the positive contributions that elderly people make to society. The amount of unpaid childcare provided runs into the tens of billions. Without this form of labour, fewer parents could work and gain fulfilment in their jobs. Indeed, as some local authorities have recognised the 60-plus generation offer a huge reservoir of untapped energy for the voluntary sector. These jobs may not carry the kudos of the Premier League footballer but they do contribute to the common good of our society.


The attitude to the elderly depicted in the old lady’s poem reflects that of the consumer throwaway society. Once an individual is of no further use to the economic wheel then they can be cast aside. The model of the nuclear family, as opposed to the extended family model, has much to answer for here. The nuclear family, made up of parents and 2.4 children is a product of the economic system.


Once the grandparent has served his or her purpose, they can be shipped off to the care home. Dutiful visits every so often then follow. The “problem” of mum or dad is nicely dealt with, shipped off to another place.


Out of sight out of mind – ‘they really like the home you know.” “I can’t visit, there is my job and the kids.”


Whatever happened when the grandparent was the parent bringing up the child, how did they cope? Every child owes a huge debt to their parents. All the care lavished on that child in bringing it up. The sacrifice is incredible. So why, when the parent becomes elderly, should that debt not be repaid by the child? The old extended family model kept child, parent and grandparent living together, often in the same house, but if not the same street or area. The support network was there. The care home was a rarity.


The economic model, of course, has had an impact here as well. People having to travel for work makes sticking by roots and the extended family model more difficult. Though perversely, now as house prices continue to remain out of the reach of many younger people, the extended family may re-emerge out of economic necessity.


The extended family was not a perfect model, but it did seem to retain community and responsibility to one’s nearest and dearest, something that has now been lost with a society that is all too ready to warehouse its old people out of sight and out of mind.


The Church has a key role to play in igniting this debate about how the elderly get treated in society today. It is a sanctity of life issue, where the Church's voice should be heard. The question of where the common good lies in our concept of family is a debate long overdue.


Let’s stop running away from this issue and bring it out into the open.